When you look at Wellington Phoenix fullback Liberato Cacace and how important he is to the team’s success this season, it’s very easy to forget that he’s only 19 years old.
Recently voted by his peers as the joint-PFA Footballer of the month for January 2020, Cacace has become indispensable for the Phoenix in his third season, electrifying the crowd on a regular basis with his game-changing runs and sublime footwork.
Growing up in Wellington to Italian parents - his father owns La Bella Italia restaurant in Petone – Cacace always dreamed of becoming a professional football player. As a child, he would sleep in a full Italian kit with a football tucked under his arms.
Cacace recalls being awed as a 10-year-old when then Phoenix captain Andrew Durante and other players came to his house for a barbecue at his father Antonio’s request. Antonio says there is no doubt the captain's gesture back then helped inspire his son to become the player he is today.
"It was beautiful to see the young boys watching through the window with their eyes wide open and calling each other saying 'look here comes Andrew Durante and Chris Greenacre and Paul Ifill’ and then to see in the backyard that these players were kicking the ball with them.”
Cacace’s path to the Phoenix began with him coming through the youth ranks at Island Bay and Capital Football, before making the move to Ricky Herbert’s Junior Elite Academy. He would go on to play for St Patricks College, helping his school team win the Wellington Premier Youth football league.
In the 2016/17 season, Cacace began playing for the Wellington Phoenix reserves squad, and he would make his Hyundai A-League debut for the senior side on 2 February 2018 - with the 17-year-old coming on as a sub in an away loss to Sydney, all the while still at school.
Antonio says it was a proud moment to watch his boy turn out for the Phoenix at such a young age, with the playing shirt his son wore for that game proudly on display in his restaurant.
"It's his debut shirt. It's a very important shirt," he said.
Both being at school and playing in the A-League proved a challenge for Cacace, as he found balancing study and training to be difficult at times.
"It's quite challenging to balance the two because I want to train every day with them but you've also got school that same day."
After making seven appearances that season, Cacace signed a two-year professional contract with the Wellington Phoenix. His 2018/19 season was his coming out party, as he racked up more minutes than any of his teammates – despite missing two matches due to his NCEA exams – and solidified himself as Wellington first-choice left-back.
Cacace also scored his maiden Hyundai A-League goal, in an 8-2 win over Central Coast Mariners, as well as a now-famous second half run against Melbourne Victory that left Japanese star Keisuke Honda trailing in his wake. Cacace was also consistently one of New Zealand's best players at the World Cup that year as he debuted for the All Whites.
But he finished the season knowing that while he had improved, he still needed to add a new dimension to his game for next season.
"I just want to be the perfect all-rounder, a complete player – I want to be the best left-back in the league and I think I can do that, so that's what I'm working towards.”
So far this season, Cacace has shown he can be the complete package as he’s widely regarded as the best left-back in New Zealand and the Hyundai A-League. Cacace says he is really enjoying his football under coach Ufuk Talay and is determined to help the Phoenix reach the finals.
"We're dominating teams and it's a joy to watch but also to play. We've got such a great structure that Uffie has formed with this club, with Coach wanting us controlling teams with the ball.”
Phoenix goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic is among those singing his praises.
"As long as you have that drive to improve yourself and a little bit of talent like Libby does, he'll go far," Marinovic said. "But it's important he just keeps on the route he's going and looking to improve every day."